How to learn what your customers want, Part I

Written by Deena Waisberg

Finding out what’s really important to your customers and where you aren’t meeting their expectations can improve your operations and keep customers buying from you. That’s where customer surveys come in. The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to hire a consultant to design the survey; you and your team can write it in-house. The bad news: “You can’t throw a survey together in 10 minutes and expect to get useful information,” says Richard Pridham, president of Montreal-based Agili-T Consulting Group Inc., which helps businesses develop more profitable relationships with customers.

PROFIT’s customer survey Q&A is your roadmap to writing the best survey possible. Ask yourself these questions before you get started.

What do I want to measure?

You can have a mix of goals, but no one survey can cover it all, says Pridham. Are you:

  • measuring customer satisfaction and loyalty?
  • gauging the quality of your services?
  • doing a competitive assessment?
  • hoping to use the survey to help with a strategic plan?

Figure out what you want to accomplish and then focus your questions around your main objectives.

How many customers should I survey?

You must survey enough customers to get statistically reliable results. How many is that? It depends on your customer base. Surveying 10% of customers is sufficient if you have 10,000 customers in total. “But if you only have 100 customers,” says Pridham, “we’d encourage you to survey all of them.” If you’re in a position to choose customers for your survey, pay attention to factors such as geography and demographics. If you have customers across the country, don’t interview in only one province.

How should I deliver the survey?

There are many ways to conduct a survey: in person, by telephone, by e-mail or on the Web. In-person and telephone surveys are most expensive. In a retail environment with 100 locations, you can count on paying between $1,000 and $2,000 a day for the interviewers’ time. On the other hand, you can purchase entry-level survey software, such as Zoomerang ( and Survey Monkey (, starting at about $1,000; this type of software allows you to ask a limited number of questions in various formats and create an e-mail invitation to participate in the survey. Still, Web or e-mail surveys aren’t always the way to go. If your customers are not online, you want to use phone or in-person options.

What rating scale should I use?

Do you want respondents to answer using a scale from one to five, one to ten or perhaps extremely satisfied to extremely dissatisfied? Choose one rating scale and use it consistently throughout the survey. Don’t neglect to provide a neutral choice (eg., 3 on a scale of 1 to 5). “Asking a customer to choose between one and four forces him to pick a favorable or negative answer,” says Pridham. “This may not reflect how he feels.”

What type of questions work best?

Clearly written questions yield the best results. If your questions aren’t clear, then the answers you get won’t be either. For example, avoid asking two questions in one, such as “Are we providing quality goods on time?” You may be providing quality goods but not on time. Conversely, you may be providing substandard goods on time.

Most importantly, make sure you choose a survey framework (type of questions and type of rating scale) that you can use to measure performance in years to come. “If you change the framework significantly,” says Pridham, “then you won’t be able to use the results of the first survey as a benchmark.”

How many questions should I ask?

You may be tempted to ask 100 questions, but that will only ensure a low response rate. “You’ll get a lot of drop-outs,” warns Pridham, because people don’t want to be trapped into a big time commitment. Pridham says 20 to 30 questions is often sufficient. You might find it helpful to group the questions into four or five sub-themes. Phone surveys should last no longer than 10 minutes.

Once your customers have been surveyed and the data comes rolling in, how do you best analyze it? Watch for that story in an upcoming PROFIT-X.

Read other pointers on How To contribute to your business success!

© 2003 Deena Waisberg

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